Reporting from Myrtle Beach, S.C. — Abbie Dorn lies in a hospital bed in her parents' home on the South Carolina coast. A halo of dark curls frames her pale face. The pump for her feeding tube clicks softly in the quiet room.
Yaakov Cohen, her older brother, settles into a folding chair by her side and begins to read. The subject is accounting. Interest payable. Bonds issued at a discount. Five-year amortization schedules.
Abbie begins to cry. Yaakov smooths her forehead, "I know this is a little boring, Abs." She calms. He reads. Yaakov is working toward an accounting degree. Abbie once kept the books for her in-laws' Los Angeles real estate business.
That was before she checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center nearly four years ago to deliver triplets -- a procedure so fraught with medical error that she is no longer able to move or speak.
A digital frame across from her bed flashes pictures of her smiling, healthy children: Esti, pretty in pink. Yossi eating dry cereal with a spoon. Reuvi on his maternal grandfather's lap, roughhousing.
Abbie and their father, Dan Dorn, have divorced, and Dan is raising the children in a modest Beverlywood bungalow. Abbie, 34, held her babies only once, the day of their birth. She has not seen them in nearly 2 1/2 years.
Abbie's parents have been named conservators of her estate, which includes a multimillion-dollar malpractice settlement, and are asking a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to order Dan to let Abbie see her children. Dan has refused all requests, arguing that visitation would be too traumatic at their young age.
The bitter dispute raises questions both legal and profoundly human. What is a parent? What constitutes a parent-child relationship? How do you show children that they are loved? And can Abbie Dorn ever be a mother to her children?
In court papers, Dan, 33, describes the woman he once loved as "in a vegetative state with virtually no hope for recovery." His attorney, Vicki Greene, says, "As far as we know, Abbie is incompetent," that the case is all about her parents' wishes, that "we don't know what Abbie wants, because Abbie can't speak for herself."
Abbie's mother argues vehemently otherwise. Her daughter, Susan Cohen says, has improved markedly since "the event." She gets hours of therapy each day. She can read. She is capable of complex thought.
And she can communicate. With her smile. Her tears. And, most of all, her eyes.
"I ask her, 'Do you want to see your children?' " Susan says. "And she gives me a long blink."
Abbie's face is alight with joy and promise, head tossed back, her veil a gauzy cloud. Her smile could not be wider. The moment is frozen in a black-and-white photograph in her parents' living room. It was taken Aug. 18, 2002, Abbie and Dan's wedding day.
She had just finished chiropractic school in Atlanta. He hoped to expand the family business, which his grandfather launched during the Great Depression. They wanted children right away and dreamed of raising their Orthodox Jewish family in the tight-knit Los Angeles Lubavitcher community.
After two years, they began fertility treatments. Abbie eventually became pregnant and spent the last half of her pregnancy in bed on doctor's orders.
Dan, recalls Susan, "was devoted. He was very protective about her not overdoing when she was on bed rest. He would dress her every morning, picked her clothes out."
At 8 a.m. on June 20, 2006, the couple raced the short distance to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Esti and Reuvi were born without incident. But Yossi was positioned awkwardly, and while delivering him, Abbie's doctor nicked her uterus, according to the malpractice attorney.
She subsequently lost a massive amount of blood. By 2:30 a.m., she was in shock, her arms and legs cold and clammy. By around 6 a.m., she had stopped breathing. Then she went into cardiac arrest. The defibrillator did not work properly. Her brain was starved for oxygen.
Susan and Paul, Abbie's physician father, were still in South Carolina when Dan called to break the news. Susan answered the phone, listened briefly, then screamed.
"Is she dead?"
The Cohens flew to Los Angeles right away. They found Abbie on a respirator in intensive care after an emergency hysterectomy.
"When her mother came in, [Abbie's] eyes bugged out," Paul recalls. "She was awake. And she became very agitated. Obviously she recognized [Susan], so her brain was working at the time. They gave her more sedation to help her relax. She was fighting the respirator."
Over the next 48 hours, Abbie slowly improved. Her blood was clotting. Her kidneys were working. Family members allowed themselves a sliver of hope.
Then, early in the evening on June 23, Abbie became very still. The Cohens crowded around her bed along with Roz Dorn, Dan's mother.
"Wiggle your toes," the two women urged Abbie. "Wiggle your fingers."